Diverse Oklahoma: Vietnamese American Baptists
The last few days have been the most diverse since we began our trip. On Thursday we met with a local member of the September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, a college Republican who plans to join the Army after he graduates, the Rabbi of Temple B'nai Israel, a Reform Jewish congregation, and members of the Islamic Society of Greater Oklahoma City. We ended the day at an event sponsored by the Victory Fund, an organization that encourages gays and lesbians to run for office. On Friday we visited a Native American Health Clinic and the Oklahoma City National Memorial to hear Sheriff Charlie Hanger talk about the day he arrested Timothy McVeigh. Yesterday we met our first Libertarian at a body piercing shop (tattoos are illegal here) and stopped by Herland Sisters Resource, an all-volunteer women's organization.
Today we went to the Vietnamese First Baptist Church. Upon arriving in Oklahoma, we immediately noticed a large Asian community, particularly Vietnamese. Several thousand Vietnamese refugees settled in Oklahoma City during the 1970s after the fall of Saigon. Today most Vietnamese residents, shops, restaurants and grocery stores are in the rapidly growing Asian District. The church itself is just outside of Oklahoma City and has 120 members. A few minutes after we arrived, Christen Le offered to translate the sermon, which was given by her father in Vietnamese. After the service, we stayed for lunch and had a conversation with Christen, 26, about the church and the Vietnamese community. Christen's Vietnamese name is Phuong. Christen is below with Christopher Kim, her father, and Patrick Le, her husband.
Why did you change your name?
I changed my name when I became a nationalized citizen. My dad changed all of our names to American names when we became naturalized. My Vietnamese name means Christ in Glory. I've been here for 10 years. Before I was in Texas. My dad built a boat and we escaped Vietnam and stayed in refugee camps for about two years.
In Thailand and Philippines. The First Baptist Church of Ardmore, Oklahoma, sponsored our family, so we spent our first year in Ardmore with no rice. It's a very small town, just south of here.
Did people from the church actually go to Thailand to meet you?
No, a lot of camps were set up to accommodate the refugees that escaped and world organizations sponsored the people in those camps. You don't meet any of them. You're just matched up.
And there was no rice in Ardmore?
There was Uncle Ben's, but it's not the same. (laughs)
How old were you at that time?
I was about seven.
What was it like when you first arrived?
It was different. I started school in first grade. By second grade, I started understanding. By third grade, I was pretty much with it.
Was your family originally Baptist?
I wouldn't say Baptist. There's Catholicism in Vietnam and the other Christian religion was Protestant. It was started by foreign missionaries in the early 1900s. They came over to Vietnam and set up a seminary. My dad came to accept God when he was a little boy. There were already Vietnamese pastors at that time that went through the seminaries. He himself attended the seminaries and was ordained a pastor in Vietnam before he came to the states.
How big is the Vietnamese community here?
There are about 10,000 Vietnamese here. Most are Catholics.
How many members do you have here?
How does this church compare to other Baptist churches?
We're similar to most Southern Baptist Churches except we have praise and worship songs, which is untypical of Southern Baptist Churches. We're half evangelical and half Southern Baptist. We were originally from a Baptist Church so we adopted a lot of their ways. We are also part of the Southern Baptist Convention and participate in a lot of their activities. We served as interpreters during the Billy Graham revival a few years ago.
Do you work with other churches?
The other Baptist churches in the area really don't know we exist. They really don't know anything about us.
Tell me about Oklahoma.
Almost anybody in Oklahoma knows about a church or has been to a church. There's one on every corner and maybe two on some corners. Churchgoing is a big part of Oklahoma life. Everybody around here is pretty friendly. This is Oklahoma City, which is called the City. I've never been in a big city. There are a lot of opportunities here. It's not as high paying, but you can afford to live here. A lot of Vietnamese people move here because the cost of living is affordable.
What do you do?
I'm a pharmacist. Both my husband and I are pharmacists.
I've been wanting to interview pharmacists. What do you think of the conscience clause laws that allow pharmacists to refuse to dispense the birth control pill or other medications for moral reasons?
In Oklahoma, the law says it's up to the pharmacist. If you don't dispense it, you'll ask if anybody else is willing to, so it's not a problem here. I still believe that it's up to the pharmacist and pharmacists are honest enough to say, I won't dispense it because I don't believe it's right, but they'll always ask around for others to dispense it.
Have you ever had that experience?
No, because our pharmacy doesn't carry it.
Are you talking about the morning after pill?
How do you feel knowing that you have the choice not to dispense the pill?
I feel it's fair. You shouldn't have to be forced to do something you don't agree with as a professional.
Do you think a patient has the right to access a drug that was prescribed by his or her doctor?
Certainly. Access won't be a problem. If we don't dispense it, someone else will. I believe a patient has the right to get what they want and what they need. If we ran the only pharmacy in town, I think it would be wrong to deny someone, especially if they know that a patient can't get it anywhere else.
Some people say it's against their religion to dispense certain drugs.
To impose my belief on someone else is wrong. Things happen in front of your face everyday that you don't agree with.
We've been going to a lot of churches and talking to people about how their faith impacts their politics and voting habits. Half or more of the churches we've visited bring politics into the church. Does that happen here?
No, my dad doesn't like to bring politics in the church because of where he came from. He just preaches what is in the Bible and from the Bible you should know who your candidate is. I don't know if this is common in other areas, but I listen to Christian radio and around voting time, they'll run ads and tell you to participate in the process as a dutiful citizen; other ads actually name people because of their standing on abortion and things like that.
How do you feel about that? Do those ads sway your opinions?
Honestly, no. They are politicians and they tend not to be very truthful.
Does the Vietnamese community tend to lean more conservative or liberal?
Vietnamese are conservative. Vietnamese participating in American politics is rare. They tend to generally be conservative, but some of the people around my age are sick and tired of conservatism.
Is that how you feel?
No, not really. I don't think it's a matter of conservatism or liberalism as long as it's the right thing to do. You know what's right and what's wrong.
Do you consider yourself a Republican or a Democrat?
Funny, I registered Democrat, but I voted for Bush because Kerry didn't seem very attractive to me. I registered Democrat because I wanted to vote for Gore last time around, but Kerry wasn't the candidate I was looking for this time.
Did you like anything about Bush or did you vote for him because Kerry didn't do it for you?
I voted for him because Kerry didn't do it for me. If there was a better candidate, I would have voted for him.
Better in what sense?
Telling people the real problems and what they intend to do to solve those problems and not just the run around. Kerry didn't address the issues at hand. I just voted for Bush because I didn't like Kerry.
What issues do you want to hear about in 2008?
World affairs. I really like Bush for going to war. In a nation that is so oppressed...I get all choked up....sometimes war, no matter what the reason you go for, will be better for the people. Imagine if Vietnam didn't go to war. I wouldn't be here. If America wasn't there to see the oppression or see the wrongness that was going on, then people like me wouldn't be here, so for whatever reason people go to war, as long as the world sees what goes on, it will be better than not seeing at all. Bush may be over there for some other reasons. I don't know. But in the long run, it will be better for the people of Iraq.